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Bush Eyes Public Lands For Renewable Energy

Feb 24, 2003 - Environment News Service -

Even as the Bush administration proposes slashing funding for most renewable energy programs in next year's budget, administration officials are touting the untapped potential of renewable energy resources located on millions of acres of federal land.

A new government report finds that "public lands have abundant opportunities for renewable energy development," assistant secretary of the Interior for land and minerals management Rebecca Watson told reporters Friday.

Rebecca Watson, assistant secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management "Increasing our domestic development of renewable energy sources will help to reduce our dependency on foreign sources of energy," Watson said.

The report analyzes the potential of geothermal, solar, wind and biomass resources on the majority of the 230 million acres managed by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The report found that 63 BLM planning units in 11 surveyed states have "high potential" for the development of one or more renewable energy sources.

But some said the report is not what the renewable energy industry needs to promote growth.

It is a "helpful contribution," but it will do little to further renewable energy development, said Alan Nogee, director of the Clean Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit research group.

Expanded markets and federal incentives are needed to spur the renewable energy industry, Nogee explained. He argues that if the administration is serious about renewable energy, it should look both overseas and to U.S. state governments for successful strategies.

Solar energy offers a virtually unlimited source of clean, renewable power. Here, the world's largest solar power facility, located near Kramer Junction, California, stretches into the distance. Today, for example, the United Kingdom announced some $1.6 billion in government funding to enable it to generate fully 20 percent of its electricity from wind, wave and solar power by 2020. The policy uses tax incentives to promote renewable energy generation and requires electricity suppliers to meet a proportion of their needs from renewable energy sources.

Within the United States, 13 states have renewable energy standards that require their utilities to purchase varying percentages of their power from renewable sources, and some 12 more are discussing them.

Yet the Bush administration has opposed forcing utilities to buy energy from renewable sources. The latest budget plan from the White House cuts funding for most renewable energy programs and virtually eliminates $23 million in grants and loans to farmers, ranchers and small businesses for the development of renewable energy projects and energy efficiency programs.

"This is a useful baby step when giant leaps are what is really needed to ensure our energy security and increase our renewable energy supply," Nogee said.

The report, jointly prepared by the BLM and the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, relied upon federal data and statistics for lands within 11 western U.S. states - including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming - taking into account weather, terrain and the existence of roads, potential workers and transmission lines.

A total of 35 BLM units were listed as having high potential for the near term development of geothermal energy.

Twenty BLM planning units in seven Western states have high potential from three or more renewable energy sources. Eighteen of these sites are in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.

Wind energy is the fastest growing segment of the world's renewable energy sector. Some conservation groups say these giant turbines are better suited for private property than for public landscapes. It is these sites that the report detailed as "a starting point for discussions regarding priorities for BLM land use planning activities."

"BLM can then determine the best order in which to prepare or amend land use plans to meet the Interior Secretary's commitment to using energy from renewable resources on public lands," according to the report.

Watson said that public land managers would be looking to identify areas where there is high potential for both renewable and nonrenewable energy, as documented in a recently released Congressional report on the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

"Land use planners can use these two reports to locate transmission corridors where they are most needed," she said. "This helps reduce impacts to the environment and is more efficient."

Watson suggested such areas of overlap could include southwest and south central Wyoming and a portion of the Powder River Basin in Montana. These areas are heavily mined for coal and gas, but also have high potential for wind energy development.

No specific timetable was laid out in the report for BLM to push ahead with preparing land use plans to allow renewable energy development on public lands.

The administration's desire to spur the development of renewable energy within public lands faces skepticism from critics who have blasted the President for his tepid support of renewable energy and his enthusiasm for increasing oil and gas development on public lands.

"We should spend more time investigating ways to develop renewable energy on private lands, rather than trying to do it on public lands," said David Alberswerth, energy analyst for the Wilderness Society, a Washington DC based conservation organization.

The report can be found at:

Updated: 2016/06/30

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